In commenting on my recent post Atheism is Not Strictly Conceivable, readers Vishmehr, Cincinnatus and Leo all pointed out that the Principle of Sufficient Reason [PSR] appears to rule out freedom for God, or for creatures, or for any sort of being. Leo provided a link to a short review of arguments that the Principle of Sufficient Reason entails necessitarianism.
It does not.
This is a good thing! If we were not free, then we would not be free to understand or intend anything. But if the PSR were not true, then everything would be unintelligible, and we could not understand or intend anything. Either way, as Vishmehr pointed out, we – and all other minds, including the Divine mind – would not actually exist. In order for minds actually to exist, the PSR must be true and minds must be free.
Fortunately, this is possible. Freedom and intelligibility are compatible.
To see why, one must first understand the arguments that the PSR entails universal necessity, so that either it is false or minds are not free. Two of the strongest arguments are very well and clearly stated in the document linked by Leo. The first:
Suppose God is significantly free regarding creation. Then God could have not created and the fact that God creates is contingent. If that is right, then the fact that God exists is not a sufficient reason (explanation) for the fact that God creates, since necessarily, if there are A worlds that are B worlds and A worlds that are not-B worlds, then A isn’t a sufficient reason for B. So if God freely creates then the bare fact that God exists isn’t a sufficient reason for a world of dependent beings.
But, you say, what about “God intends to create” as a sufficient explanation? Given that God is self-existent and omnipotent and all the rest, if God intends to create, then God creates (nothing can thwart God’s plans); so the fact that God intends to create gives us a sufficient explanation of God’s creating. Very good. For “God intends to create” does seem to give us a sufficient explanation for “God creates” since the former is sufficient for the latter. There is just one problem: if God is free, then the fact that God intends to create doesn’t seem to stop the regress because this fact, though sufficient for God’s creating, is not itself necessary; so it is itself in need of explanation. So if God is free, it looks as though there is no sufficient reason for the world of dependent beings. The answer to our question would seem to be ‘no.’
But it is *not* right that the fact that God creates is contingent on anything. The argument presupposes composition in the life of God: a time when he had not yet intended to create anything, *and then* an intention to create, *and then* an act of creation (and, presumably, many other periods and moments before and after). But under classical theism (which is the traditional teaching of the Church), the life of God is not like that. It is not a series of moments, but a single, simple, eternal moment. There is no “time” in eternity when God had not yet created, or intended to create. The moment of God’s creation is the same singular moment as that of his existence. Creation comes along in company with God’s act of existence, as a package deal (just as the three Persons of the Trinity arrive together and integrally with that same package).
Thus there are no A worlds that are not B worlds. There is in eternity no state of affairs in which God has not yet created, and might go one way with things or another. Nor therefore is there any possibility at all that God might have created differently than he did – or rather, does. This does not mean that God’s creation is necessary. It means that it happens the way it happens, and this fact rules out other ways it might have happened.
God’s freedom lies not in optionality, as it does with temporally conditioned creatures who must all decide what to do next. It lies in the fact that he is nowise conditioned by anything at all. On the contrary: he is the primordial condition of condition per se. He is not contingent upon anything. Nor therefore is his act. In particular, his creative act is not conditioned upon some previous act of his, such as deciding to create. There is in him no such thing as before or after. He is one pure act. There is no God who does not create these worlds he is creating.
So the details of the creation are not necessary; they are not baked into God’s essence (even though he knows about them eternally qua possibilia, and so too therefore do we). He is free to create as he wishes, and nothing can affect his decision. It does not depend on any prior state of affairs. So neither is his creative act contingent.
Then God’s creative act is neither necessary nor contingent. It is free.
The second argument:
Suppose we list every contingent fact. Suppose we now tie them all together with ‘and’s. In other words, suppose there are just two contingent facts, fact F and fact G. Then we could write down their corresponding propositions and put an ‘and’ between them so that we’d now have a conjunctive proposition ‘F and G.’ Suppose that we do that with not just two facts, but with all the contingent facts. Call the mammoth conjunction ‘C.’ Now if the PSR is true, then there is some sufficient explanation for C. This explanation must be either necessary or contingent. If it is contingent, then it is part of C. But no contingent proposition could be the explanation for a proposition of which it is a conjunct (because then it would be explaining its own existence and if it could do that it would be necessary and not contingent). On the other hand, if the explanation of C is itself necessary and if it is a sufficient explanation of C, then C will be necessary (since C will be a necessary consequence of a necessary proposition). So either C is unexplained or it is necessary. But the PSR tells us that it can’t be that C is unexplained so it must be necessary. So PSR entails that all facts are necessary. As a professor of mine in graduate school, Stephen Schiffer, would say, “Believe it if you can.”
But as we have just seen, God’s creative act is neither contingent nor necessary. It does not fall into C. Yet neither is it necessary. Nevertheless God himself is necessary, so that C can be sufficiently explained by its contingency upon his necessary existence.
Thus is it that freedom and the PSR are compatible.
What does this all tell us? It tells us that the modal relations of necessity and contingency are sub-eternal in their pertinence. They are ex post facto relations among entities. They are categories that arise only as between two completed entities that, as both complete, can then have causal relations of some sort. Incomplete entities still in the process of becoming can have causal influences, but until they are fully determinate, their character cannot be defined, nor therefore their sufficient reasons specified. What does not yet completely exist is not yet completely caused.
Remember though that in God there is no past. Sub specie aeternitatis, everything whatsoever is at once flowing into being.
Notice in conclusion that classical theism is classical – is, i.e., Traditional – for good reason: it can handle this sort of difficulty.